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Judith Holofernes

Judith & Holofernes

I recently visited The National Gallery and saw one of my favourite paintings from Johann Liss (about 1595 – 1631) and I stood in awe with the painting entitled “Judith in the Tent of Holofernes” I was struck by it’s brutal nature and blood curdling rendition of a simple Bible story. Why did Judith & Holofernes painting have such an effect on me?

Judith & Holofernes

As I have been reviewing early paintings by women, one woman continually emerges in the most violent of settings. The woman’s name is Judith.  Judith is never the shy, retiring female. She is strong & sometimes seductive, but always proud & driven by righteous vengeance. You will see how the style and depiction of a beautiful heroine changes as time passes.

Painted by Artemisia Gentileschi

Painted by Artemisia Gentileschi

The subject of Judith and Holofernes was very frequent in the imagery of the time. It symbolised in many cases the death of tyranny at the hands of the oppressed. What was not so frequent was a crude treatment of the image, let alone treated by a woman. Artemisia made abundant paintings of women, in which action and courage are revealed as a general rule. It is more probable to think that the painter is carrying out a plea in favour of its condition, besides a magnificent work of art. The features of Tenebrismo most extreme taken from Caravaggio are present masterfully: three figures arranged in a narrow, oppressive space, in the middle of the night lit by oil lamps, which lends itself to the exhibition of chiaroscuro. The biblical heroine does her duty so coldly to keep her gown away from the jets of blood to avoid being stained. Your servant is diligently helping her. This story of a woman who murdered by her people the man she was forced to seduce was probably closely related to her own story.

Caravaggio and Judith and Holofernes

Author: Caravaggio
Date: 1598 h.

According to the original texts of the time, one hundred years after Caravaggio painted his tremendous scene, he continued to provoke horror and surprise among visitors to the Zambeccari palace in Bologna, where he was before moving to the National Gallery of Ancient Art. Accustomed today to a different expressive language, the work may have diverted its initial effect from the horror of curiosity. But we must think that the capture of a decapitation was not so difficult to contemplate live in the seventeenth century, much less for our artist, often involved in murky activities of the Roman underworld.

Caravaggio resorts, as is usual in his painting, to an almost forced realism, which strips the soul of the characters of the action before the spectator. It is impossible not to shudder at the firm decision of the beautiful Judith, unmoved by the terror of Holofernes, the oppressor of his people. With a serenity of statue, he pulls the king’s head to aid in the execution, careful to keep away from the blood that gushes like a fountain. The maid, terrified and mesmerized by the action, waits with a cloth to receive the trophy that will lead the elders of the city to demonstrate the death of the tyrant.

The violence of the action reverberates in the expressions of the characters, who offer different versions of what is happening. The drama extends in waves of colour, from the aggressive red of blood corresponding to the red of the curtain, to the brilliance of the sword and the tremendous flash of light that illuminates the breast of the heroine of the Old Testament. The technique that Caravaggio used to compose as a truculent episode was later used by other painters of tenebrista naturalism, among which the Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi and works in a similar mood of Valentin de Boulogne stand out.

Judith with the head of Holofernes

Date: 1495-1500

Simplicity is going to be one of the main characteristics of the last stage of Botticelli, in contrast to his first works. This same scene had made the teacher 30 years ago – see Return of Judith to Betulia – finding a significant difference between the two images. The heroine focuses our attention, avoiding any spatial reference so as not to mislead us; Her dress loose brocade and elegant folds, even the maid has passed into the background. Judith is slightly disproportionate, it is a very stylised figure, with the robe tied to his body, carrying in his left hand a tiny head of Holofernes and a great sword in the right. The tonalities continue with their traditional vividness but the whole has lost elegance to be of interest the scene, trying to penetrate spiritually in the spectator.



Judith and Holofernes illustrates an Apocryphal Old Testament passage in which it tells how Judith, a rich and beautiful widow, conceived a plan to save her people besieged by the Assyrian army, who had laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith arranged herself “so that she could seduce men to see her” (10: 5) and set out with her servant in the asymmetrical lines. With the false pretense of being a deserter of her people, she gained access to the enemy general, Holofernes, to whom she proposed an imaginary system to defeat the Jews. When he had been in the camp for several days, Holofernes fell in love with her and organized a banquet to which he invited Judith. Once finished, Judith and Holofernes were left alone. Holofernes, who was drunk, tried to seduce her, and it was at that moment that Judith quickly took up her sword, and with two strokes, with all her might, cut off his head and put it in a sack which her maid had prepared for her. Judith and her servant returned to Bethulia and as expected, the Assyrians thanks to the bewilderment that the news of the murder of Holofernes routed, thus ending the siege of Bethulia.

This theme is represented for the first time in the Middle Ages as an example of the virtue that overcomes vice and may be associated with the allegorical figure of Humility. Judith is also frequently depicted in the Renaissance, where her victory sometimes appears as a whole with Samson and Delilah and Aristotle and Campaspe. This juxtaposition indicates that at that time the subject was considered as allegory of the misfortunes of the man in the hands of an astute woman. But probably it is with the Baroque painting of Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Orazio Gentileschi and Artemisia Gentileschi , daughter of the above, when the scene reaches its wider dissemination.

Artemisia chose the moment of greatest cruelty and drama of history, when Judith, with firmness and determination, sank into the throat of the Assyrian general Holofernes the blade of his own sword. In addition, it reinforces the violent action without sparing references, such as the blood-stained sheet or the agony of the Assyrian. Cruelty is justified. This is revenge against Artemisia rapist Agostino Tassi, not served on a cold plate but on a Bellissima fabric. Agostino Tassi was a painter of scenarios and landscapes that stood out in his handling of the perspectives. Orazio Gestileschi wanted Agostino to perfect his daughter in the method, and with this idea he attended every day the workshop where Artemisia worked. Artemisia reflected her anger on Judith’s face and gave Holofernes’s head the appearance of the aggressive rapist.

The following was adapted from the declaration of Artemisia in the process of violation of March 1612. Source: Artemisia. Alexandra Lapierre.

“That same day, I was painting for pleasure, and Agostino returned. I started hand palette and brushes and threw them aside. “Enough of paint!” I begged Tuzia to stay, not to leave me alone with him. But she left. I told him I did not feel well, that I seemed to have a fever. And he answered me: “I do have a fever, and I burn much more than you!” As we approached the door of my bedroom, he opened it suddenly and threw me inside, bolted the bolt and threw me on the bed. With his hand on my chest I kept your Mbada. He put his knee between my thighs to keep me from closing my legs. I was struggling. He put a handkerchief over my mouth to stop me screaming. He started raping me. I screamed, called Tuzia, scratched her face, tugged at her hair. Nothing stopped him. When he finally let go, I went to the table and, taking a knife, ran to him, shouting, “I’m going to kill you. You have dishonored me! “ As he stopped the blow, I wounded him in the chest. But I only managed to scratch it. I was bleeding little. As I sobbed, I screamed and despaired, to calm myself, he said: “Grant me your hand: I swear I am going to marry you, Artemisia. I swear I’ll desposaros as it has left the laberin to where I am prisoner “. And with that promise of marriage he convinced me to accede to his wishes. “

Evidently these promises Tassi never fulfilled them. The truth is that, thanks to the mentality of the time, the figure of Tassi was not almost affected, despite the publicity given to his rape trial. He continued to receive assignments after the process, and his work went on without major inconvenience. His criminal record made up a list ranging from the rape, incest, sodomy and perhaps even murder as indicated by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower in “Born under the sign of Saturn. Genius and temperament of the artists from Antiquity to the French Revolution.

However, none of this mattered too much to Orazio Gentileschi, who knew him, when he decided to be his daughter’s teacher. Nor did it prevent him from being reconciled with him after a while. However, it is Artemisia who bears the reputation of “young lascivious and precocious.”

Orazio Gentileschi,

Orazio Gentileschi,

There analysis of the work of Artemisia concluding that Artemisia could be trying to resolve the trauma of her rape for fourteen years, between 1612 and 1625. In fact made five versions of this work. Mary D. Garrard, quoted by Laurie Schneider Adams in Art and psychoanalysis says:

“It is not so much the male character that suffers as the female character who acts.

And adds Laurie Schneider Adams:

“If Judith and Abra, her maid, are a kind of contrast with artemisia and Tuzia (since Tuzia, her friend, betrayed, while Open helped Judith in her act of justice), Holofernes can be seen as the psychological equivalent of Agostino Tassi. “Some of the bloodiest Assyrian leaders also were interested in education, art and literature. The paradoxical content between art and violence were also combined in the teacher and violator of Artemisia. The abuse of power on the part of both Holofernes and Tassi are what the painter connects in her work. And although she could not prevent it in reality, she could solve it in her paintings.

In its most glorious time during his stay in Florence, Artemisia painted tirelessly injustice, betrayal and shame, being interested in other biblical, historical or mythological heroines: Yael sinks to hammer a nail into the temple of his enemy to ensure the future of her family, Lucrecia wields her dagger, and Cleopatra lets herself be bitten by the serpent rather than be subdued to the victor. Mary Magdalene, Galatea, Esther and Bathsheba struggling between love, death and freedom.

Perhaps for all these reasons feminists took Artemisia Gentileschi as her mentor when claiming their demands for freedom and equal rights and choice for women. Some shelters for battered women are named Artemisia Gentileschi. But Artemisia, in life, did not get this recognition and admiration from her gender partners (sometimes women can be our worst enemies):

And to think that a woman has painted such rrores ho! Exclaims a dwarf court.

“A real carnage!” Responds another.

Archduchess Maria Magdalena of Hapsburg, wife of Grand Duke Cosimo II, provides contemptuous and scandalized fabric that has come to see the workshop of the famous painter.

I can not stand this picture – she says Maybe if I had painted a more ladylike still life or a bouquet of flowers, something …

But not all the members of the princely entourage think the same thing. In addition to the Grand Duke and his wife, some illustrious characters, such as the painter Cristofano Allori and the mathematician Galileo Galilei, visit the workshop. Other attractions appeal to interest and curiosity: is the painter disguising her own story through the biblical account? She had played a very loud, scandalous episode, and the morbid comments preceded her like a court of jester. Is the face of Holofernes a portrait of the painter Agostino Tassi, his rapist? Yes! Everyone assures you, and this discovery is a surprising game, and even fun. Signora is arranging their accounts through painting , “say some.

Other gloomy thoughts hang over the painter: does the bill of the work remember the style of her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi? Is his work superior to that of his teacher? Or is it just a mediocre imitator?

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) was a German Renaissance painter & printmaker in woodcut & engraving. He was court painter to the Electors of Saxony for most of his career & is known for his portraits of German princes & of leaders of the Protestant Reformation. He became a close friend of Martin Luther. He also painted religious subjects, first in the Catholic tradition, and he later attempted to find new ways of conveying Lutheran religious concerns in art. He continued throughout his career to paint subjects drawn from mythology & religion. He had a large workshop & many works exist in different versions. He, too, was attracted to the tale of Judith & Holofernes.

Lucas Cranach he Elder

Lucas Cranach he Elder

Cranch & his workshop also painted similar paintings of Salome with the head of St John the Baptist on a platter.

Lucas Cranach (Northern Renaissance Painter, 1472-1553) and his workshop Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist.

Slome is definitely a subject which I will be going back to.

Jacopo Comin, Jacopo Robusti, Tintoretto (ca. 1518-1594):

Judith and Holofernes

The painting of Tintoretto, probably painted in the first years of its race, towards 1577, shows the crucial moment in which after having cut off the head to Holofernes, Judith asks his maid to hide his head in a sack. The picture contains all the necessary clues to decipher the events leading up to the decapitation … The scene takes place in the tent of Holofernes. On the table, which is to the left of the composition, the remains of a dinner can be distinguished next to the armor worn by the general.

Just above the table, a small window opens through which you can glimpse the Assyrian camp. Judith is in the center of the composition, marking a pronounced diagonal with the maid who contrasts with the perspective of the bed and table. Judith is depicted in her best galas and showing one of her knees, something that can give a sensual look that would refer to the fact that Judith used her feminine charms to stay alone with the general.

Jacopo Comin, Jacopo Robusti, Tintoretto (ca. 1518-1594): Judith and Holofernes (detail)

Jacopo Comin, Jacopo Robusti, Tintoretto (ca. 1518-1594): Judith and Holofernes (detail)

At his feet is the bloody sword he used to decapitate Holofernes. Judith tries to cover the corpse, lying on the bed to the right of the composition, while giving the necessary instructions to her maid to hide the general’s head. The servant kneels in front of Judith and with her back to the spectator is foreshortening.

Tintoretto uses a very bright light that emphasises the richness of the fabrics, the vivacity of the colours, the brilliance of the metal, the quality of the glass, while at the same time enhancing the coloured shadows so characteristic of the Venetian painters. The pronounced foreshortenings of the bodies of Holofernes and the maid, as well as the perspective of the table and the bed, suppose that the scene had been conceived to be hung high and this is how one must see it, if one wants to appreciate the maximum painting to the maximum.

Johann Liss 1595 – 1631
Judith in the Tent of Holofernes

The subject is from the apocryphal Book of Judith, the Old Testament heroine of the Jews in their struggle against oppression. She penetrated the camp of the Assyrian general, Holofernes, pretending to offer assistance in the siege of the city of Bethulia. Alone with the intoxicated general, following a banquet to which she had been invited, she seized his sword and cut off his head.

Johann Liss

Johann Liss

Liss’s painting was probably executed in Rome in the mid- or early 1620s and it owes much to Caravaggio in the dramatic lighting that enhances the remarkably unsqueamish representation of the subject. The design itself may have been suggested by Venetian paintings showing the female nude from behind. The exceptional freedom of the handling, notably in the costume of Judith, serves to focus attention on her action and intensify the sense of agitation in the painting.

This blog could really go on for ever, so many painters painted the theme of Judith and Holofernes it’s hard to to put them in one blog. I’m sure this blog will continue on another day.


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